Leadership and language

This week BBC 4 broadcast a two-part documentary entitled Holidays in the Axis of Evil. To quote the web site blurb:

The Bush regime claims that North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and Cuba are part of an “axis of evil”. In a remarkable two-part travelogue, reporter Ben Anderson, armed with a hidden camera and a tourist map, visits all six rogue states and tries to find the reality of life in some of the most repressive regimes in the world.

Anderson was asked what possessed him to make such a potentially dangerous trip:

“The idea evolved after the second Axis of Evil speech when they added Syria, Libya and Cuba to the list. There’s no evidence so far to link the six countries and not one of them is linked to 11 September. When you say axis it suggests some kind of link and the only thing we found was that you could travel to all six countries on a tourist visa. So that’s what we decided to do. We were looking for links.”

Such a quest struck me as potentially fascinating. It might be possible to learn something interesting and valuable about these rogue nations. Unfortunately, these regimes turned out to be so repressive that Anderson and his female producer had a hard time interviewing many ordinary people and were prevented from filming any politically sensitive sites.

Nevertheless, my response after viewing part one of this programme was an overwhelming sense of the pathetic. It’s pathetic that the leaders of North Korea and Iraq are so insecure that they keep their citizens in ignorance of the rest of the world; it’s pathetic that their citizens are so accepting of their state’s propaganda and its constraints on their freedom; and it’s equally pathetic that, in the case of Iraq at least, the response from the West is regular and frequent bombardment. You would think we could come up with something better than crude brute force by now.

Of course, the phrase “axis of evil” was obviously a crude simplification from the start, and I’ve been haunted by thoughts of it ever since I discovered that it was coined by a Canadian named David Frum.

Frum, who was employed as a speechwriter at the White House, became widely known last year as the author of that phrase, when his wife sent an email to friends boasting of her husband’s accomplishment. Unfortunately for them, the email fell into the wrong hands and was published on the web. A few days later the White House announced Frum’s resignation, although it claimed his departure had been planned a month previously. Once the mainstream press picked up the story it became well-known news around the world (see Proud wife turns ‘axis of evil’ speech into a resignation letter).

The significant point about Frum is that, like most Canadians, I knew his mother. Or at least I thought I did. Barbara Frum was a celebrity in Canada throughout the 1970s and 80s, as a result of hosting at least two ground-breaking news programmes for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). To quote from the CBC’s web site titled The Life and Times of Barbara Frum:

From her CBC Radio days as a national presence on As It Happens from 1971 to 1982, to her highly successful 10 years at the helm of CBC-TV’s flagship show The Journal, Frum had a huge following. She spent 18 impassioned, hectic, pioneering years in Canadian broadcasting. On any given weeknight, 1.3 million Canadians tuned in to watch The Journal, where Frum hosted approximately 2,600 shows. From the great to the ordinary, she maintained the same standard of integrity, honesty and toughness of mind. Her thousands of interviews included people from every walk of life – presidents, prime ministers, world leaders?the unemployed fisherman. Each and every interview was different and revealing.

That description is no exaggeration. Barbara Frum was tough, honest and fair. There was rarely any hint of her own views or beliefs in any of the interviews she conducted. The Middle East was a hot topic then as now, and Frum must have covered the subject countless times, but I listened to As It Happens for years without ever realising she was Jewish. Barbara Frum never let her personal prejudices affect her investigation or communication of the events of her day.

That’s why it’s so difficult to understand the partisan and ill-judged behaviour of her son. How could a child of Barbara Frum coin a phrase as arrogant and simplistic as “axis of evil” and then take pride in it? To be more specific (and fair), David Frum apparently wrote “axis of hatred”, but according to the Los Angeles Times “his boss, chief speechwriter Michael Gerson, changed it to “axis of evil” to match the theological language Bush had adopted after the terrorist attacks”. Nevertheless my point remains, why would anyone admit, let alone publicise, their association with such an arrogant, provocative and misleading phrase?

Well, obviously they would only do so if they didn’t think there was anything wrong with it, and as the LA Times article explains (see ‘Axis of Evil’ Rhetoric Said to Heighten Dangers) Bush’s words were intended to incite only the domestic audience. The effect on the rest of the world was not considered important, or perhaps not considered at all.

Such naivety and arrogance in the use of language is breathtaking, and makes me wonder if the developed world really needs such ham-fisted leaders anymore. Doctors would be more appropriate. At least they would be familiar with Hippocrates’ advice:

“Declare the past, diagnose the present, foretell the future; practice these acts. As to diseases, make a habit of two things: to help, or at least to do no harm.”